story by Ryan Saylor
This year's race for the U.S. Senate got off to an unusually early start with the presumptive nominees known well even before U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, announced his intention to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., on Aug. 6, 2013.
The race, which political experts are warning could be the most expensive political campaign in Arkansas history, not only got their presumptive nominees early, but the two men and groups in support of both have started pouring money into television advertising, with many ads appearing on air and online well more than a year before the general election and six or more months before either would officially become their party's nominee.
But with so much emphasis placed on political advertising so early, is any of it working? Not really, according to polling conducted by Impact Management Group of Little Rock, which found that 40.6% of surveyed likely voters favored Pryor while 41.7% favored Cotton and 17.6% remained undecided.
According to two political consultants who spoke with The City Wire, those numbers are unlikely to change based on the barrage of advertising to hit the airwaves so far, both by the campaigns and outside interest groups. (Some of the ads mentioned in this story are included at the end of this story.)
Will Watson, a Democratic consultant with Natural State Strategies in Fayetteville, said narrow issue ads such as one titled Every Single One by the Judicial Crisis network, an ad that attacks Pryor's voting record on judicial nominees, would not resonate with Arkansas voters.
"Arkansans will probably answer more to Medicare, the shut down, loans for small business — those types of things," he said.
President and CEO Kristi McKinnon of Waterchase Consulting in Little Rock, an independent who has worked for Democrats and Republicans, agreed with Watson's assessment, explaining that rural Arkansas voters have not tuned into a Senate race that is already all the buzz in the inner circles of Little Rock and Washington.
"It's so early right now," she said.
TUNING OUT ADS
McKinnon said some potential voters have already tuned out the advertisements they see on television not only because they are tired of the ads, but also because some of the ads from outside groups have yet to connect with voters. She points to a specific ad by the National Republican Senatorial Committee called Safari.
"The worst one has to be that Safari ad. I think for Arkansans, they're not friendly to outside groups anyway. And that Safari ad — you're going to automatically tune it out. And to have someone with that accent talking about Arkansas politicians is unreal."
Even ads coming from the candidate's own campaigns are not resonating with voters, according to McKinnon, who pointed to an ad from Cotton's campaign entitled Infantry, which highlights some of Cotton's military service after graduating from Harvard Law School.
"None of these (ads) are doing anything. People are not paying attention right now. Even with the Infantry ad," she said. "I come from a military family and they saw that and didn't appreciate that ad. Things like that are not effective. Voters are thinking Harvard elitist."
SIMPLE MESSAGES NEEDED
McKinnon believes that what will finally start to move voters to either candidate, eliminating the virtual tie currently reflected in the poll numbers, is to simplify the messages and for the campaigns to stop trying to one up each other with each new ad buy.
"They really have to simplify it," she said. "Simplicity can do a lot more. I think we get away from that."
She equated it with Twitter, explaining that just because a person may have more followers it does not mean that they are reaching the audience they should, a point previously made by Brent Robinson, CEO and chief thought officer at Fayetteville-based social media consulting firm Modthink, when he previously addressed the use of social media by both Senate candidates.
"My guess is right now that the senator is talking to his (network of supports). He is getting that engagement because he is talking to people who are interested in the conversation," Robinson said in August 2013. "Cotton maybe has a wider audience, but they're not so deep. He has a national audience, but he doesn't seem to get the people on the local level who will be going to the ballot box."
‘BEST LINES FOR NOVEMBER’
Watson said there is one thing that will immediately start to shift the poll numbers and he believes it will likely be to Cotton's benefit.
"There is an ad that the G.O.P. took out against (U.S. Sen.) Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire," he said. "The title is Like Your Senator. It's a 30 second ad. It basically uses the line, 'The biggest lie of the year — if you like your plan, you can keep it.' It takes these senators that are on the record (making the claim about Obamacare and private insurance) and it overlaps that line with if you like your Senator, you can keep her. If you don't, you can cast your vote in November. It's probably one of the best lines for November."
It is an ad by Ending Spending Inc., and is one Watson said is likely to make its way to Arkansas with Pryor as its target.
"Let's look at it as a math equation. We know (President) Barack Obama is immensely unpopular in Arkansas. We know Obamacare is unpopular at this point. If the Republicans and outside groups can equate that program and Obama with Pryor, I don't see how he has much luck."
Even if a dark horse ad, such as the one Watson is talking about, makes its way into the 2014 Senate race, McKinnon said other considerations would need to factored into any voter outreach efforts, as well.
"There are so many factors going on in this election that no one is really thinking about," she said. "So many changes have occurred (with redistricting and population shifts). People (on the inside of campaigns and media) are trying to rely on the 2010 governor's race (for historical guidance), but that's not predicative of what's going to happen."
RECENT ADVERTISING MOVES
Ads from the campaigns continue to find their way onto the local airwaves and the Internet.
On Wednesday (Feb. 5), Pryor's campaign released two new ads each to start running Thursday (Feb. 6) featuring what it said was "a concerned Arkansas voter discussing Rep. Tom Cotton's reckless agenda that would turn Medicare into a voucher system, force seniors to pay more and reduce benefits."
A press release from the campaign continues: "The two ads illustrate how devastating Cotton's agenda for Medicare would be for Arkansas families."
Pryor Press Secretary Amy Schlesing declined to say specifically how much the campaign was spending on the ad buy, only calling it "a six figure ad buy," adding that it would run statewide.
Cotton spokesman David Ray was quick to condemn the ads, calling them "despicable scare tactics are typical of Washington politicians like Senator Pryor."
"In all his time in Washington, Pryor has done nothing to preserve Medicare or keep the program solvent. Instead of protecting Medicare, Pryor voted to cut $700 billion from Medicare to pay for Obamacare, a law he calls 'an amazing success' that has Arkansans suffering from lost insurance plans and drastic increases in premiums, deductibles and co-pays."
Ads for Cotton have also continued to blast local airwaves during the first month of 2014, though the majority of ads have been from outside groups.
The latest ad by the group Concerned Veterans for America, airing January 23 through February 11, focuses on Cotton's vote against a budget that the group said cut veteran's benefits. The ad buy was $665,616. The Washington Post reports another attacking Pryor's support of Obamacare is to be released Wednesday by Americans for Prosperity, an ad buy worth another $600,000, sources familiar with the group's ad purchase confirmed to The City Wire.
Figuring those numbers, plus an ad buy early in January by the Cotton campaign, ads buys in support of the Congressman have already totaled $1.5 million in 2014.